2 Charleston hotel projects, including Morris Sokol makeover, get approval but 1 fails


Two plans for new lodgings on the peninsula passed muster with Charleston’s revised hotel rules this week, while a third failed to get enough support to move forward. 

One of the approved plans includes a renovation and re-purposing of the former Morris Sokol Furniture site on upper King Street. Supporters of the project touted its ability to reactivate the downtown block, which has been largely vacant since the family-owned furniture store closed in 2015. 

But the board was split on whether to approve a large hotel request for the property just behind the Morris Sokol site. The vote came in at 3-to-3, so the application failed. 

A third proposal, which asked for a 150-room hotel use on Huger Street, passed with a 5-to-1 vote, adding another upper peninsula lodging to The Montford Group’s portfolio. The Charleston-based hospitality firm has been focusing its development farther up the peninsula, including projects on upper Meeting Street. 

Of the three projects, the Morris Sokol deal has been in the works the longest and also had the largest turnout of supporters at the Board of Zoning Appeals meeting Tuesday night. 

Among them was Ross Appel, a great grandson of the furniture store’s namesake and a recently elected member of City Council. 

“We fully support this plan,” Appel said, speaking on behalf of his family. 

The Preservation Society, the Cannonborough-Elliotborough Neighborhood Association and a few King Street business owners also asked the board to approve the request, citing ways the property owners brought input from community members into the planning process.

But others addressed the board with concerns about letting another hotel be built so close to existing lodgings on nearby Meeting Street and planned developments on adjacent lots. 

Under the city’s recently revised rules, the zoning board must find that a hotel “will contribute to the maintenance, or creation, of a diverse mixed-use district.” 

Mike Shuler, an owner in the partnership that paid $22.55 million for the Morris Sokol in 2016, said the plans for the hotel project itself promote a diverse mix of uses. 

The storefront space that was once a furniture showroom will still function as retail, and the Starbucks cafe at Mary and King streets will stay.  

The development will also include three food and beverage venues, Shuler said, maintain the existing office space on the block and provide the 20,000 square feet of meeting space that’s needed to meet the definition of “full-service.”

The Morris Sokol site is in a portion of downtown that’s considered the “full-service box.” The area, which is bound by King, Meeting, Line and Ann streets was designated by City Council to allow large hotel developments.

The updated hotel rules established a cap on these types of lodgings: the peninsula can have only eight hotels that meet the city’s definition of full-service. 

Two already exist, two were approved before Tuesday and the Morris Sokol site became a third, leaving just three more opportunities to build large hotels in that area. 

One of the previously approved full-service projects is Charleston developer Michael Bennett’s 300-room hotel slated for 411 Meeting St., on the same block as the Morris Sokol site. A lawyer representing Bennett attended Tuesday’s meeting to let the board know that the deal is moving forward.

That hotel, and the 200 rooms just approved at the Morris Sokol site, became a focus of the debate around the second item on the board’s agenda: a request for 215 hotel rooms at 82 Mary St. 

A nine-story office building had been planned at the vacant site, but, according to attorney Capers Barr, who represents owner Mary Street Parking, said that it had been planned for a “specific institutional user.” The owner decided to propose a hotel after that prospect “elected to not go forward with the project,” Barr said.  

Despite the proximity of the Bennett and Morris Sokol projects, Barr argued that a “diverse mixed-use district” referred to a broader area, so the fact that two other large hotels would be on the same block did not matter. 

Zoning board chair Leonard Krawcheck said it’s “really hard to square” the fact that the revised ordinance designates a certain area for large hotels — the “full-service” box — but also promotes a diverse mix of uses to avoid what some have described as an “overconcentration” of hotels on the peninsula.

Winslow Hastie of the Historic Charleston Foundation, who was one of the members of the hotel task force that helped amend the hotel rules, said the Mary Street request was the “perfect test case” to “utilize the new powers” the the ordinance gave the board to turn down hotel applications that don’t meet the city’s goals.

The board vote was ultimately split on whether or not the project aligned with the intention of the ordinance, and the application failed. 

The third request Tuesday was for an upper peninsula lot at 245 Huger St., which City Council voted to add to Charleston’s hotel overlay last year. The lot is mostly vacant now, except for a one-story warehouse. 

Nearby properties include a few churches, a couple restaurants and residences. The property across from it is currently empty but has been approved for a hotel, though it’s unclear if a lodging project is still being pursued there. 

The hospitality firm developing it, The Montford Group, is also building hotels on upper Meeting Street. Those projects include a Marriott-branded Moxy Hotel projected to open in mid-2021 and a 191-room wedge-shaped or “flatiron” hotel that’s slated for an opening in 2022.